Rachmaninoff composed two sets of preludes. The first set, Opus 23, contains ten preludes and was written between the years of 1901 and 1903. The second set, Opus 32, contains thirteen preludes and was written in 1910. With the addition of the Prelude op. 3 no. 2 in C-sharp minor all of the twenty-four major and minor keys are represented. This continued the tradition of the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach and the Preludes of Chopin; however, the keys of Rachmaninoffs Preludes are not presented in a systematic order with regard to relationship or key. It has been said that these brilliant pieces may be the culmination of the romantic tradition of pianism begun with Liszt and Chopin (Matthew-Walker). In them one hears Rachmaninoffs command of form, unique harmonic concept, distinct melodic style, awareness of rhythmic possibilities, and general versatility in compositional technique (LaMagra 3). In comparison to the Chopin Preludes, they are longer and more texturally complex, with technical difficulties comparable to the Chopin Etudes (Faurot 235). After the first performance of some of the Preludes, Russian critic Yuli Engel wrote:
Rachmaninoff inclines towards a solid and often polyphonic treatment, a broad structure, or towards clear contrasts of musically independent sections [. . .] Instead of Chopins two page or even one-half page works, Rachmaninoffs Preludes grow into four, six, or even eight pages. (Bertensson 175)
The Preludes contain an unmistakable Russian intensity, strong lyrical melodies, and changes of character that range from sublime sweetness to passionate virtuosity (Ashkenazy). They are among the finest examples of 20th century romanticism. There is a consistency of style between the Preludes op. 23 and 32 despite the fact that they were written seven years apart. Norris suggests that the writing found in the first set of Preludes is comparable to the Second Piano Concerto, while the writing in the Preludes, op. 32 is reminiscent of the Third Piano Concerto. Rachmaninoff composed the Preludes, op. 23 during a burst of creativity after his marriage to Natalia Satin. Preludes no. 1, 2, and 5 were premiered by Rachmaninoff in Moscow on February 10, 1903. He wrote the remaining seven while he and his wife waited the birth of their first child in May. The complete set was published later the same year (Matthew-Walker). Despite this happy time in Rachmaninoffs life, he confided in a letter to a friend that he wrote the pieces because he needed to make money. The years prior to his marriage found Rachmaninoff seriously depressed and in the care of a hypo-therapist. After successful treatment, Rachmaninoffs virtuoso-cousin and teacher (who served as best man at his wedding), Alexander Siloti, supported him financially for a few
years so that Rachmaninoff could compose. Consequently, the Preludes op. 23 bear a dedication to Siloti (LaMagra 43-44). Matthew-Walker cites several characteristics found in Opus 23 that suggest the possibility of playing them as a set. These include the stepwise motion of Prelude op. 3, no. 2 that is common to all of them, subtle relationships between each of the Preludes, such as the existence of a common note or chord connecting two preludes, and the presentation of the first and last preludes, both marked Largo, in keys that are enharmonically the same although in different modes, the first in F sharp minor and the last in G flat major. The Preludes op. 32 were written in 1910 and show Rachmaninoff at the height of his compositional powers (Matthew-Walker). Rachmaninoff was more confident at this period in his life. He had successfully premiered the Third Concerto a year before in New York and had just finished one of his large-scale sacred works, The Liturgy of St. John of Chrysostom, op. 31 (Norris).
This Opus was written very quickly. The entire set was finished in nineteen days; three of them written in one day. In spite of this, they are of the highest quality. In addition to Rachmaninoffs characteristic ascending and descending chromatic line, a siciliano rhythmic figure is found in several of them (Ashkenazy). The final Prelude, op. 32, no.13 is in the same key as the early Prelude op. 3, no. 2 but in the major tonality. The Preludes op. 32 are often bolder in technical challenges and stylistically more exploratory than the earlier opus (Ashkenazy). These powerfully evocative, miniature tone-poems make extreme demands on the performer, both technically and musically (Anderson). Matthew-Walker has concluded that the first performance of the complete Opus 32 probably took place on Alexander Silotis concert series, December 5, 1911 in St. Petersburg. Prelude op. 23, no. 1 in F-sharp Minor Date of composition: 1903 Number of measures: 41 Approximate performance time: 3:30
This sorrowful, reflective piece contains a rare combination of ternary and variation form with an epilogue at the end that is characteristic of many of the preludes (LaMagra 68). It is primarily homophonic in texture with occasional references to counterpoint. As is characteristic of several preludes, Rachmaninoffs trademark, an ascending and descending chromatic figure unifies the work. In this piece the figure appears in the accompaniment and produces captivating sonorities (LaMagra 65).
This delicately repeated, sixteenth-note pattern is presented in close-position in the left hand. The right hand contains a bare, intense melody that consists of short, slow moving two bar phrases (Ashkenazy). This melody is made up of short phrases that need to be shaped and projected as a long, smooth line. This is especially difficult when cross-hand technique is required. The accompaniment requires proper voicing and control to maintain evenness and ensure a warm performance. Tonal balance between the hands and rhythmic control are essential. The coda contains four-note chords in both hands. The left-hand chord spans a tenth and is usually rolled when played by average or small hands. Prelude op. 23, no. 2 in B-flat Major
Date of composition: 1903 Number of measures: 61 Approximate performance time: 3:30
With its commanding and noble style, this prelude has been compared to the Revolutionary Etude of Chopin (Matthew-Walker). The opening and closing sections contain a jagged melody supported by dynamic, sweeping arpeggios (Anderson). A central section presents a contrasting inner voice that consists of a stepwise, lyrical melody. This brief expressive section becomes a lyric trio, created in Rachmaninoffs own elaborate style (Anderson). A coda ends the work utilizing a unique embellishment of the tonic chord. Probably inspired by Rachmaninoffs excellent chord playing technique, this work makes tremendous demands of the performer. These include arpeggios containing block chords that span several octaves and rapid successions of four-note chords. With the thick texture of the piece tonal balance must be maintained. This is especially important in the middle section, where inner voices must be heard. The piece requires rhythmic perception and control and careful pedaling within quick harmonic changes. The full dramatic effect of the piece requires maintaining the tempo at the metronome marking given by Rachmaninoff (LaMagra 77). Prelude op. 23, no. 3 in D Minor Date of composition: 1903
Number of measures: 77 Approximate performance time: 3:15
A solemn, chordal, march-like motive against a staccato, scale-like passage creates a contrapuntal texture throughout this prelude. Clever fugal devices are included in the work, such as diminution, augmentation, stretto, canonic imitation, and fragmentation (Baylor 3). In ternary form with a coda, the piece is extremely intricate and involves interplay between different voices. It is one of the best examples of harmonic and rhythmic vitality in Rachmaninoffs music (LaMagra 77-78). Contrasts between the two textures must be shown by articulation and voicing. The staccato passages require clarity and in many instances a delicate touch. The performer must shape the four and six-note phrases indicated by the composer. There are several chords with large stretches that need to move quickly and clearly. Long pedal points at the end of the work must be clearly sounded and heard through the thick counterpoint above it (LaMagra 84). Prelude op. 23, no. 4 in D Major Date of composition: 1903 Number of measures: 77 Approximate performance time: 4:45
This quiet, nocturnal study contains the characteristics of a cradle song or barcarolle. It is introspective, lyrical, and simplistic. Written after the composers recent marriage, it evokes the idyllic happiness of this event (Ashkenazy). The prelude contains a captivating, expansive melodic line supported by a wide ranging arpeggio accompaniment that evolves into a complex ensemble of melody, counter-melody, canons, and chiming treble echoes (Faurot 235). The piece consists of three variations and a coda (La Mara 84). The first variation presents the theme in the alto voice with a triplet descant in the treble. The second variation contains three voices and presents a rhythmically altered melody. A chordal
climax of the piece occurs here involving cross rhythms of duplets and triplets. The third variation is quieter with the theme presented in chords and an added descant in the treble. A five measure coda ends the piece. Although homophonic in texture, there are contrapuntal implications that require proper voicing. Color and variety must be expressed within the diverse accompaniment styles (LaMagra 84). The performer must maintain a sustained, lyrical quality within the long melodic lines despite the inte